The Siege of Mirkwood expansion to Lord of the Rings Online has been out since December. It has gotten a lot of good press from our competitors (I’m not going to run up their site traffic; you can look up their reviews yourself). Most of that good press is rightfully deserved. In spite of the smaller amount of content compared to the last expansion pack, Mines of Moria, Mirkwood offers the right amount of gameplay for the price: free to multi-month subscribers when it was released. It’s a great expansion to what I think is already an excellent MMO with an excellent community.
But I don’t want to do a review of the game. Instead, I would like to spend some time discussing the finer points of the game design that Turbine put into the title. I want to point out the small things that they did right, to which I hope other designers are paying attention.
Doing a blog post also means I can assume that the reader knows something about the game and expansion already, so I don’t have to explain things like radiance, mithril flakes or fish-slapping emotes.
For today, let’s examine the Skirmish System.
Let me just say right now that, just because MMO means “massively multiplayer,” we are not obligated to assume that the only quality high-end content should be raids. Single-player and small-group gameplay can be just as fun. LOTRO has handled this well in the past (the epic storyline is worth pursuing regardless of XP or gear), but the skirmish system really cashes in on the possibilities of flexible content. At their heart, skirmishes are instances. You enter the instance, complete the objectives, get the rewards (or die trying) and leave. But unlike instances, skirmishes are completely flexible and varying in their content. First, they can be scaled from single-player to raid in size at the touch of the mouse. This means if you just want to storm the Necromancer’s Gate all by yourself, that’s fine. If you want to roll with your two best buddies, that’s great. If you want to run a whole raid for your kin, go ahead. The game will spawn enemies accordingly. Second, in line with this flexibility, anyone you invite into your group can join the skirmish from almost anywhere on the server. There’s no hassle with porting and summoning.
Then there’s the content itself. Each skirmish has its own objectives (some defensive and some offensive), its own map and its own enemies. Fighting skirmishes in Dol Guldor will see you facing orcs, trolls and fell creatures, while fighting in Bree consists of engaging Saruman’s human lackeys and half-orcs in combat. But each skirmish also changes every time you play it. The lieutenants who lead the opposition are varied in their capabilities, and you never know which ones are going to face you at any given time. Furthermore, each skirmish has optional objectives, called encounters, which give increased rewards. Encounters spawn randomly for each run of a particular skirmish, adding more uncertainty, and thus replayability, to each of the battles.
Each skirmish also emphasizes that it is a battle in the war. While you can run them as often as you want, they provide the illusion that war is overtaking Middle Earth without redesigning the entire game world and removing content that takes place before some of these battles. For example, players can still help Strider/Aragorn reforge Narsil by recovering the Silithar from Annuminas, even though such an event takes place substantially before the elves’ assault on Dol Guldur. By putting these battles in the war for Middle Earth into skirmishes, the designers help prevent the lore of the game from getting confusing or out of hand (“Why are there suddenly a thousand evil men wandering around the Shire when Frodo just left it yesterday?”). For many players, myself included, keeping the lore in perspective is vitally important to our continued desire to play.
Reinforcing this warlike content, the skirmishes also provide all players with a temporary pet-like companion called a soldier. Soldiers only appear by your side inside skirmishes. Unlike pets and pet-based classes (Captains and Loremasters, you know who you are), soldiers can only be given rudimentary orders. They are warriors who stand beside you, not slaves to be ordered about. But what makes them useful is that soldiers are completely modifiable to suit your needs. You can assign them one of several soldier classes, everything from the healing Herbalist to the threat-managing Protector. Beyond simple classes, you purchase skills, buffs and special abilities for them to use. You can only use one soldier at a time in a skirmish, but eventually you can buy every soldier and all the traits (by eventually I mean after several months of grinding, but who needs every soldier anyway?). This mechanic helps any class to get equal enjoyment out of skirmishes, without skirmishes having to be designed in a lowest-common-denominator sort of way. It also means there is never a problem of “Well, we have a group, but lack so-and-so,” since every member of the group, or even every member of a 12-man raid, has their soldier with them. Intelligent gameplay, rather than following a script of “One tank, 1 DPS, 1 healer, etc.,” creates a game system that rewards smart play rather than playing by the numbers.
Skirmishes have another aspect to their flexible content: difficulty. While challenge modes are nothing new to players who have run Grand Stair a thousand times, what I dislike about them is that you have to complete the instance in some obscure way that makes no tactical sense. Why on earth is the hard mode for Dark Delving to fight Gurvand in the dark? I know it’s harder, but you’d think the game would reward you for figuring out how to get around his extra strength when he is in total darkness. Skirmishes do not do this. Instead, when you choose a skirmish from the menu, you can select its difficulty. The objectives do not change, merely the number and difficulty of enemies, lieutenants and encounters. There is no guessing or accidental failing of challenge modes in skirmishes. Failing just means you wiped because you couldn’t handle the enemies you faced. While Mirkwood instances such as Warg Pens and Sammath Gul still have challenge modes, I hope that in the future Turbine integrates the easy-to-select difficulty of skirmishes and puts it into instances (like the challenge brazier in Sword Halls).
A final good design choice is the length of skirmishes. You can generally run one in under an hour (raids are longer because of the sheer number and potency of enemies, and higher difficulty skirmishes see more waiting around after fights to regain health and power). This means that you are not committed to three hours plus the time to find a group that likes longer content. Let me be clear and say that I am not opposed to lengthy raids and long-term group runs, but it is nice to have such well designed content that can be run easily when you’ve had a long day at work and just have a bit of time to relax.
Before moving on to another topic on another day, let me say that, just because I think the skirmishes are designed well and should be emulated by other designers, I am not suggesting that the rewards are well designed. First, the good news is that skirmish marks (the reward from all skirmishes) can be redeemed for any number of rewards, from gear to mithril flakes to 45 level-class quest items (a feature I have used, since I have a hard time getting into Carn Dum runs these days). This flexibility is great. The bad news is that all of the gear is absolute garbage compared to on-level equipment you can either craft yourself, buy at the auction house, earn for running instances in either Moria or Mirkwood, or even earn as part of the epic story arc in either Volume 1 or Volume 2. I will chastise Turbine right now and say that I was disappointed that the skirmish gear did not fulfill an in-between role, much like PvMP gear. As it stands now, in terms of classes, you can buy or craft really nice gear, and then work for the full radiance set appropriate to your level. Turbine missed an opportunity to create skirmish gear that would be different from, but almost equal to, other available gear. After all, I would love to be in the game and have to decide whether my Moria radiance set, the Mirkwood radiance set or the Skirmish set would be best for a particular run because of different stat increases and other buffs. I’ve said it before (in-game to other players at least) and I’ll say it again: LOTRO, like any RPG or grand strategy game, works best when players must make strategic decisions about their setup for a particular situation. If, as Turbine has done, you are going to include a system of traits that can be slotted and unslotted to tweak your character to a particular situation at hand, why not have gear sets that do the same?
To be continued…